5 reasons broadcasters pay licensing fees for stories and why it corrupts journalism

When Ann Coulter congratulated ABC News for its reporting on the Anthony Weiner story, her high praise was this: “You guys own the Weiner story.” She may not have meant it literally, but she could have. ABC owned the story of Meagan Broussard’s sextual exchanges with the New York congressman because the network bought it, in the form of a “licensing fee.”

Journalism organizations that once refused to pay sources now write them large checks for access to information. They label these payments “licensing fees,” and in return they receive photos, video, emails, or cell phone records. In the process, they lose credibility and simultaneously strengthen the market for checkbook journalism.

While there are legitimate “licensing fees” paid to freelancers for photos and other material, using that label when paying sources is a false claim to journalistic integrity. So, too, is the claim that networks do not, did not and would not pay for an interview, which is true by the letter of the contract but not by intent.

Meagan Broussard, one of the six women with whom U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., admitted to exchanging "inappropriate" messages, is interviewed on the "Hannity" program on the Fox News Network, in New York, Monday, June 6, 2011. (Richard Drew/AP)

This practice of paying licensing fees at the major broadcast and cable networks occurs often enough that a year and a half ago, Paul Friedman, then senior vice president at CBS News, told the AP’s David Bauder, “If we all drew a line again, maybe we could stop this … But that’s probably hopelessly naive. It’s out of the bottle.”

Since that time we’ve learned that ABC has paid for Casey Anthony video and photos and Joran van der Sloot photos and text messages. A rep tells TVNewser the network did not pay a licensing fee related to its just-announced interview with Jaycee Dugard, though The New York Times reports ABC did pay six figures for Dugard's home movies last year. "20/20" co-anchor Chris Cuomo said the payment to Broussard did not bother him because checkbook journalism  is "the state of play right now."

The competition between ABC and NBC has amped up the frequency, and possibly amounts, of these payments, according to network executives interviewed by the Times. NBC paid recently for fake teen pregnancy video.

“Money is being asked for more and more of the time,” said Jeff Fager, the chairman of CBS News, who denounced the practice. “If you’re in the business of having to pay people to get a story, it can’t be worth it,” he said.

CNN paid just this week for cell phone video of a fatal Florida shooting incident. We have contacted Fox News by phone and email to ask whether that network has paid a licensing fee to a source and we have not heard back.

Yet, the national networks’ closest newspaper counterparts -- The New York Times and The Washington Post -- tell Poynter.org they do not pay sources for news. The Associated Press says the same.

If you’re tempted to dismiss the difference as "lower standards," resist the urge. There are other reasons broadcast journalists may cross a line that print journalists defend.

  1. Television is a visual medium that relies on images to tell stories. So broadcasters might reasonably consider photos or video more critical to their storytelling than print journalists would. However, this would have been as true 20 years ago as it is today, which doesn’t explain why the practice of “checkbook journalism” seems to be increasing.
  2. What may explain the increase, though, is the availability and burden of having more airtime to fill, with the advent of cable news. (Reader Steve Matthews adds another reason: There is more material to sell than 20 years ago, with cell phone video, Twitpics, etc.) Meanwhile, newspapers have smaller news holes because they've cut back on pages.
  3. We are a skeptical culture. Journalists have long required evidence to verify that allegations are true. Now, that evidence must be offered as public proof. That additional step could mean paying a source for emails or cell phone logs to show viewers documentation of a digital relationship. A newspaper could simply excerpt portions at no cost.
  4. The value of some information to broadcast journalists is higher than the value of the same information to print journalists. This discrepancy could be stretched as result of newspaper declines that have reduced competition in many markets. It also reflects a different editorial threshold. We pay for materials because they’re critical to a story worth telling. Do newspapers and broadcast news agree about the stories worth telling? They often do not, which is why you see different stories headlining the morning paper and the morning newscasts.
  5. And here’s a final possibility. While national newspapers and network newsrooms have cut back on expenses, there may remain a more flexible budget line in broadcast for licensing fees. These kinds of deals are rarely struck at local TV stations or newspapers.

How we got here

Broadcast journalists have long paid for essential photographs and videos. My colleague Al Tompkins reminds me that there were legendary negotiations for the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But that film was provided by an uninvolved witness, not a source.

Tompkins says the rise of TV news magazines may have escalated the practice of paying sources for videos and photos. News magazines gave networks the opportunity to tell more and longer stories, which would allow for more video. If not for the available airtime, they might have passed on paying for some video, he says. Celebrity trials also may have been a factor.

Morning television shows, like “Today” on NBC and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” play a part, says Poynter’s Kelly McBride. To book people involved in hot stories, these shows compete with tabloids and celebrity magazines, which more frequently pay sources.

And the so-called “fifth estate” — nontraditional news sources like Gizmodo, Deadspin and other similar sites — is more comfortable paying sources for material. This complicates matters for their competitors in the fourth estate, particularly as stories pass from the tabloids or fifth estate into traditional media.

The harm we cause

So if the practice has become more common, why not accept it and move on, as it seems some broadcasters have? Here’s why: When news organizations pay for information, it hurts journalism’s credibility. The practice invites viewers to question the reliability of the stories we tell.

“You now have a dual relationship with these people, financial and journalistic, and the two of them corrupt each other,” says Tompkins.

The corruption can come in two forms. The financial arrangement may encourage a source to say things that are untrue and it may encourage them to dramatize the truth.

“When you pay for information, it changes the nature of the information,” McBride says. “People are more likely to distort it, to make it more valuable or to even deceive you, because they’re trying to give you what they think you want.”

“The juicier the story, the more your story is worth,” Tompkins says. And “the more these are worth, the more impetus it could give to create the situation that creates the photograph.”

In other words, by paying for material like dramatic images, emails and call logs, news organizations are creating a market for them. That market may attract people with agendas who create situations that will lead to dramatic images or materials. That is dangerous, for journalism and society. If you don’t pay, you eliminate the market.

Where we go from here

We can return the genie to the bottle.

It is already true that some news organizations pay and others do not. Thursday morning, The New York Times published an interview with Gennette Cordova, the woman who was sent the first photo of Weiner that made news. It was Cordova's first extensive interview and she also provided "a portion of her communications with Mr. Weiner to The Times." Based on the Times' policy, presumably there was no money exchanged. And after Meagan Broussard’s ABC interview, she appeared on Fox News’ “Hannity.” We know ABC paid a licensing fee; we don’t know whether Fox paid one.

So, here’s a start. Pay licensing fees only to information providers who are not involved in the story documented by their material. Freelance journalists would fall into that category, as would any observer or witness, like Janis Krums, who tweeted a photo of the Hudson River plane landing.

In the rare instance when you do pay a source for material, “show me the receipt,” as my colleague Jill Geisler puts it. Tell readers exactly what you paid, for what items and why, including indirect costs such as travel, hotel and meals. If use of the material is exclusive, say that.

If you’re afraid to reveal those figures because the next source will use them in negotiations, then you’re paying too much. ABC was criticized for paying $200,000 to Michael Jackson's family for video rights; the Casey Anthony payout was about $200,000. More typical, it seems, is $10,000 to $20,000.

Be aware: “Disclosure mitigates harm but it doesn’t erase it,” Tompkins says.

And remember, as you cross over this pay wall, the audience may not follow you.

Mallary Tenore contributed to this report by interviewing newspaper staff about whether they pay sources for materials.


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